Salt Marsh Birds Are Subject of Study

We are all aware of the importance of conservation of the federally threatened Piping Plovers in Connecticut, but did you know there is another species that is considered equally as important in terms of conservation in Connecticut, the Saltmarsh Sparrow. It may seem surprising that conservation of a fairly common, albeit very localized, species is considered as important as that of such a rare and localized breeder as Piping Plover. The reason is that these rankings consider the relative importance of a geographical area to a species in addition to the overall size of the population and threats within a given area.

Saltmarsh Sparrow a globally vulnerable species that nests in abundance in the Hammonasset marsh. Check out those big feet!

Saltmarsh Sparrow a globally vulnerable species that nests in abundance in the Hammonasset marsh. Check out those big feet!

Due to the high conservation priority of this species and as part of the effort to identify Important Bird Areas of global significance in Connecticut, the University of Connecticut and Audubon Connecticut have received funding for an in-depth two-year study of Saltmarsh Sparrow and Seaside Sparrow usage of Connecticut’s coastal habitats. Funds will be provided through the State of Connecticut’s Endangered Species Income Tax Check-off fund, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Long Island Sound Study program. Dr. Chris Elphick and Dr. Margaret Rubega from UConn, and Patrick Comins, Audubon Connecticut’s Director of Bird Conservation will be the principal investigators for this project.

Connecticut’s coastal marshes are very important nesting areas for these two secretive species of birds. These coastal marshes may have some of the highest densities of nesting Saltmarsh Sparrows found anywhere in the world. This species is found nesting only in a narrow strip of high salt marsh habitat from southern Maine south to Maryland, with as much as 50% of the world population being found from Maine to Long Island. Its geographical range is estimated to be only on the order of 7,800 square miles, but with considerably less suitable habitat within that range (by comparison, the total area of Connecticut is around 5000 square miles). This means that when suitable habitat factors are considered, the entire world range of this species is smaller in area than all of Connecticut.

BirdLife International lists the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows as a special concern species, due to this restricted range, and threats to this habitat type from rising sea levels and habitat degradation by invasive species and other factors. Additionally, because of these factors, Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows are given a Watchlist score of 29 by Audubon, which is among the highest of any North American Species.

The globally important tidal marshes at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison.

The globally important tidal marshes at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison.

This project will focus on the vast salt meadow marsh in Guilford, the salt marsh at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, and Great Island Marsh, near the mouth of the Connecticut River. The study will provide information about the sizes and densities of these populations, their habitat associations, and develop models to explain and predict the variation that are seen in the abundance and occurrence of these birds. These models will allow managers to examine the consequences of habitat change, such as open water marsh management (OMWM) for these species.

In a broader context, this research will provide critical information needed to evaluate the global and regional importance of Long Island Sound to Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows. As such, this study will lay the groundwork for protecting this species in the face of changing habitat, pollution and sea-level conditions, and help with Audubon’s efforts to document North America’s Important Bird Areas, a crucial first step to comprehensive protection of the continent’s avifauna. Stay tuned for information on opportunities to volunteer to assist with this important study.

Threats and conservation issues facing the Saltmarsh Sparrow include:

  • Restricted breeding and wintering ranges.
  • Very specific habitat needs.
  • Degradation of nesting habitat by invasive plant species including Phragmites.
  • Habitat degradation and loss due to draining and diking of salt marshes for development in some parts of its range.
  • Development of the upland edges of salt marshes, which are important buffers to the nesting habitat for this species.
  • Increased predation by introduced species, including cats, in proximity to human development.
  • Small, localized populations of this species make surveying with Breeding Bird Survey and other conventional methods problematic.

Research is required, as there is little known about species’ demography.

Photos: Patrick Comins, Audubon Connecticut